What do you think when you think about New Year’s Eve? Perhaps it conjures up images of battling the crowds in Central London, waiting around in the cold for several hours while guzzling tinnies of Red Stripe, trying in vain to find a pub that will let you use their toilets, losing your friends as you try to find your spot again which has inevitably become so packed you can no longer see anything, all for 15 minutes of fireworks before negotiating the vomit on the night tube. Or even better deciding you’re going to go for a big night out, queuing for hours and paying £40 to get into a club that’s usually a fiver to hear a mediocre DJ, surrounded by people dancing erratically and k-holing on the floor while you think wistfully about the pyjamas and duvet awaiting you upon your return.
This is what New Year used to be for me. I always found it stressful, and for years I avoided leaving the house at all. But this year I wanted to ring in 2018 in the way I intended it to go on.
There really isn’t a lot on offer apart from the standard drinking, dancing and going wild. Last year I went to the Buddhist Temple to meditate my way into the New Year, but this time I decided it had to be outdoors.
So how do you go about planning an alternative New Year?
I put the feelers out online for people who wanted to go walking and camping, and initially there was a high level of interest. However, it was from people all over the country, and I didn’t think it would come into fruition because of logistics. I suggested the South Downs, which I love and is easily accessible from London, and someone suggested the Seven Sisters walk which is my absolute favourite. Unfortunately this did exclude people from further afield, but I know other people had their own New Year adventures.
One of the people who wanted to come was Julia from Ipse Wilderness, which runs wilderness therapy retreats. She said she would be happy to run some activities for people who attend. We planned on a long walk for New Year’s Eve, a pub dinner, a wild camp, and a morning sea swim.
There were a few components that made this such a special New Year.
On the morning of the 31st December, 8 of us turned up in East Dean to start the Seven Sisters walk. The weather proved a challenge – the rain was coming down sideways and the wind was so powerful that someone had half of her poncho ripped off!
The Seven Sisters undulate along the chalk cliffs near Eastbourne, and as we trudged through the rain, we talked to each other about the ups and downs of the past year. The terrain is moderately physically demanding, and you will definitely need as good pair of boots in the winter, but it certainly is achievable. The landscape is striking, with dramatic drops (stay away from the edge!) and views that are typical of the British South Coast. The route took us over the seven hilltops, and into Exceat for lunch.
In the afternoon, we walked a loop around Friston Forest. The rain had slowed down so we could relax a bit more and enjoy the trees and the copious quantities of mud.
The walk took us out through pretty villages, back to the pub in East Dean.
If you’re planning a New Year outdoors, I would recommend factoring in some stops at decent cafes or pubs. I had originally thought it would be fine just to bring sandwiches and snacks and have a picnic, but with the ferocious weather, a sit down indoors over a plate of hot food was most welcome.
We stopped for lunch at Saltmarsh which had soups, hot dishes like chilli and dhal, quiches and sandwiches and a wide selection of cakes. The coffee there is fantastic, and does good things for the soul after a morning out in the elements.
The staff made us feel so welcome. As a group of 8, we booked in advance to ensure a space, and after telling them we’d be arriving wet and muddy, they put sack cloth on the chairs and made the room toasty warm to accommodate us.
For our evening meal, we went to The Tiger Inn in east Dean, which maintains a cosy, warming feel despite being quite spacious. The décor is elegant, with little lamps on the table, and their New Year’s Eve menu incorporated a good range of hearty roasts. The atmosphere is jovial without being rowdy or crowded. It was the perfect vibe to end 2017.
Wild camping is technically not allowed in most of England, but is widely accepted if you’re respectful and discrete. I have written about getting started in wild camping in this post, and New Year is a great time to give this a go. For one thing, everyone is more relaxed and you’re less likely to be reprimanded by some jobsworthy official, and on an internal level, it’s a wholesome way of doing something special to mark yet another successful rotation around the sun.
I’ll be honest – our camping spot wasn’t the wildest in the UK, or even on the South Downs. Between you and me, the only flat spot that was marginally sheltered from the wind was a grassy field that was clearly used as an overspill car park in the summer. It was pretty close to the road and the view was average, but none of the mattered.
What mattered was that we were having a small adventure, wrestling our canvas in the billowing wind as we pitched up in the dark (or in one camper’s case, not bothering with such trivialities and sleeping out in her bivvy), making connections with each other under the stars, and drifting off, exhausted, satisfied, to the patter of rain and the roar of the wind in the nearby trees.
I was tucked up in my sleeping bag when an anticlimactic dribble of fireworks cracked, a fresh page was turned, and a host of new hopes, dreams and goals were born. It was midnight.
I thought of all the people around the world, intoxicated in a club, or cuddled up on their sofas with a cup of tea, surrounded by those they love most, at glitzy parties or intimate dinners, or even fast asleep, greeting 2018 in the way that they had dreamed. Meanwhile I was feeling like I’d struck gold with my new year, and lamented the ones I’d wasted, doing what I thought I should be doing instead of following my heart.
This was where I was meant to be.
The Spiritual Stuff
Hiking and camping are all very well and good. I mean, they’re two of my absolute favourite ways to spend time. But I find the end of the year a time when I truly enjoy reflecting on the last twelve months and looking to the next. The spiritual side of my new year, run by Julia Gillick and the aforementioned wilderness therapy shebang, Ipse Wilderness, hit the nail crash bang on the head.
Julia’s open nature, kindness, and leadership qualities provided such a supportive environment for sharing and caring. It was a balance – I felt like I could open my heart, but it didn’t get so deep that I felt vulnerable. It was a pleasure to listen to the others and to recognise and value the thoughts they related.
We had some games and exercises, from discussion points on some (somewhat nihilistic) quote cards to reflection on our year.
Those of us who camped wrote down our hopes and fears for the year ahead on little pieces of paper. The aim was to burn the fears so they disappeared and didn’t follow us into 2018. As luck had it, the weather was so extreme that we were unable to set light to the paper, so laughing, we frantically tore them into tiny pieces instead. We buried our hopes in the ground, giving them the chance to grow into realities over the year.
You might think this is new age hippie malarkey. I’m not saying you’re wrong, but it’s hugely cathartic, it’s fun, and it’s a way of expressing yourself. It may feel a little out of the comfort zone, but I’d challenge anyone not to find it both fun and valuable. It is profoundly positive for wellbeing and moods, and it is of course serious, but Julia approaches in with a sense of humour and true humanity.
There was love, kindness, and even a few tears when we acknowledged the qualities we saw in each other and what we wished for one another.
Julia’s activities took something I already love (a long walk outdoors) and made it something magical, emotional, better than your average day in the countryside.
You need to make your first morning of a New Year a memorable one. We enjoyed our hot beverages from the Jetboil as the sun came up, chilly, recounting the night before and the noises each of us had heard from our tents.
It was our intention to go for a swim in the sea, and I would encourage anyone to do that on a cold January morning. It wasn’t our day though, the tides were too strong and it looked dangerous, so we just let the freezing waves splash against our legs without going in.
Taking the train back to London was a sombre affair. After surviving a night in the wild, I wasn’t ready for the real world, the noise, the concrete, and everything outside my bubble of nature and calm.
I learned that I love to celebrate huge occasions in a special way, just not in the same way as most people. And that’s okay. I connected with new people. I revisited a part of the UK I love. I survived the storm.
Doing something a bit different for New Year is something to consider. The post shows how I made it work, but you can make it work in your own way. I was so lucky to have a wilderness therapist on hand, but maybe you know a yoga teacher or a fabulous storyteller who can add something special to your adventure.
If you have any questions about planning an alternative New Year, you can comment here or chat to me on Twitter or Instagram – both @seannasworld.